Truth By Show of Hands?

I haven’t linked to BioLogos lately – but they’ve had a number of good posts recently. Karl Giberson put up a thought provoking post this week worth some conversation, Would You Like Fries With That Theory? In this essay he poses a question about the role of consensus, orthodoxy, critical thinking, and authority in the way we arrive at conclusions.  To be sure Giberson didn’t express it in quite this fashion, he was concerned primarily with science, but this is the idea I would like to explore today.

To what extent do we rely on expert opinion and consensus?

In the middle of the essay Giberson makes the following observation:

Evolution, Big Bang, and Global Warming are all places where uninformed lay people presume to challenge the scientific community. We hear calls to present both Intelligent Design and evolution to high school students and let them make up their own minds. Is this really a serious proposal? How can this possibly work? Questions that leading scientists with Ph.D.s have explored and debated for decades are to be presented to 17-year-old high school students to adjudicate during a 50 minute class right after lunch?

I need to meet these amazing students.

Professor Everyman would have us believe that the “scientific orthodoxy” or “consensus” is just an opinion poll. Scientists all believe the earth is billions of years old; they all like pepperoni pizza; and they all think blue is a great color. We can be lemmings and go along with the crowd or we can think for ourselves, and order sausage pizza, prefer green, and believe the earth is 10,000 years old. To go along with the majority in this case is caricatured as abandoning your own thinking in favor of blindly accepting someone else’s.

Giberson has a rather blunt way of putting it, but the point is important.  Scientific orthodoxy is not decided by a show of hands – not among experts and not by laymen. Teach the controversy makes no sense in a highly technical area.

Of course this is true in every area of knowledge. For example, most of us abandon our own thinking in favor of blindly accepting someone else’s when we read our Bible in English.  The translation we see is the imposed consensus of experts. Should we all go and judge for for ourselves the appropriate context for an ancient text or the appropriate meaning of a Hebrew passage? Is the gender of Junia/Junias to be decided by a hand vote in each congregation?

Why do we accept the authority of the translation we read?

But expert consensus can be wrong – and critical thinking is a must. I do not encourage anyone to have blind faith in authority – whether the authority is a scientist, a pastor, or a favorite seminary professor.  So this leads to even more important questions.

How do we think critically and judge the trustworthiness of expert consensus?

When should we accept authoritative witness? When should we hold the conclusion loosely? When should we challenge is all together? How do we know the difference?

And finally … what is the responsibility of the expert, the scientist, pastor, Hebrew scholar, in the process?

For the pastors here – why should your congregation listen to what you say? Why should you listen to what I have to say?

One of the responsibilities of Christian experts, in science or in biblical studies, is to write for the church. Two more recent posts on BioLogos, Signature in the Synteny and Signature in the Psuedogenes try to do just this – and provide some explanation of the evidence for common descent.

I’ve asked many questions – provided few answers today – but this is an important topic. What do you think?

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